'Behold the Dreamers' raises issues of class, immigration, and color

An African family comes to New York, hoping to live the American dream. Then the financial crisis hits and the story gets much more complex.

Behold the Dreamers By Imbolo Mbue Random House Publishing Group 400 pp.

Setting a novel in 2007 New York – with a protagonist who works for a Lehman Brothers executive – is like setting a story in Weimar Germany or October of 1929. Catastrophe looms: Lehman, the US’s fourth largest investment bank, will collapse within a year, setting off a global financial crisis from which the country has yet to fully recover. The question for readers of Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers is how these events will play out in the lives of her characters.

"Behold the Dreamers" follows the path of a Cameroonian family whose members, like many newcomers to America, harbor dreams of success unavailable to them back home. Undocumented immigration, the widening gulf between rich and poor, and the thinly veiled racism of an avowedly “post-racial” culture converge in this new generation of immigrants’ painful encounter with the American Dream.

But Mbue’s novel is also a distinctly New York story, and in her descriptions of the life of the city, the prose grows luminous. Of the Lehman tower, seen through the eyes of Jende Jonga, a chauffeur, she writes: “Its walls seemed to soar on forever, like an infinite spear, and though Jende sometimes pushed his head far back and squinted he couldn’t see beyond the sunlight banging against the polished glass.” Jende’s routine with his six-year-old son captures another corner of the city: “For dinners they went every other day to one of the African restaurants on 116th Street, where they ordered attiéké with grilled lamb, their favorite meal in all the restaurants there. Sometimes, after they were done eating, they bought ice cream at a shop on 115th Street and walked down Malcolm X Boulevard holding hands and licking ice cream.” Mbue will also no doubt be likened to the acclaimed Nigerian-American author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for depicting the hurdles a certain class of American-Africans face, yet passages like these are also reminiscent of Joseph O’Neill’s "Netherland," another story of an immigrant’s seduction by the glamor and peculiarities of New York.

The emigration of Jende and his wife Neni is not driven by war, famine, or poverty, but by the dearth of opportunities – financially, educationally, and professionally – in their hometown of Limbe. As a CUNY student, Neni is in the country legally, intent on mastering pre-calculus in hopes of becoming a pharmacist, while Jende, who has applied for asylum, drives a livery cab. Their big break comes when he lands a job as a driver for the Lehman executive Clark Edwards. The Jongas soon become imbricated with the Edwards family. While Jende serves Clark with unquestioning loyalty, Neni forges a more complex relationship with his wife, Cindy, who hires her to serve at parties in the Hamptons and care for their young son Mighty. It’s a good set-up – offering a lucrative income, and bonuses like Cindy’s castoff designer clothes, leftover shrimp from her parties, and paid vacation – that is, until it isn’t. I’ll hold my tongue about the ripple effects when Clark’s and Cindy’s world begins to crumble.

Mbue handles American’s racial landscape deftly, as when Jende, during his interview, glimpses The Wall Street Journal headline, “White’s Great Hope? Barack Obama and the Dream of a Color-Blind America,” or later, when a white woman informs him that it’s illegal for Liomi to sit in the front seat and Jende “graciously” responds “yes, it was, he knew, thank you so much madam.”  It’s class that’s foregrounded more starkly, both through the ebb and flow of Jende and Neni’s possibilities for citizenship and financial stability, and the fate of peripheral characters, like Leah, Clark’s secretary of 15 years, who is five years away from receiving Social Security when Lehman collapses. In other words, there’s lots of collateral damage to go around.

That aspects of the Edwards family feel a bit stock is a slight weakness: He’s a charming workaholic, she’s a neglected trophy-wife, their elder son is rebellious, and young Mighty is a poor-little-rich-boy, starving for emotional connection. But the Jonga family is rich and engaging in the complexity of the characters, as they face moral compromises and strategic maneuvers on the road to citizenship.  Simply representing the day-to-day life of a woman like Neni who spends evenings overseeing her son’s homework, preparing dinner, and ironing her husband’s clothes, before beginning her own studies at midnight, fueled by instant coffee, is poignant.  Clark, by contrast, gets off easily, not just financially, but also with the characters who surround him, through a Gatsby-esque charm that has much to do with the privileges of being white and male, along with a dash of poetic aspiration.

“Why does everyone make it sound as if being in America is everything?” one character asks.  The closest thing to an answer lies in a long passage in which Neni muses on what her children will gain and lose, should they be forced to leave.  It is the impulse any parent has to make their children’s lives as good and full of possibility as they can.  The real question is whether America can still fulfill that promise.

Elizabeth Toohey teaches at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, and contributes regularly to the Monitor.

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